Monday, March 30, 2009
The Urgency of NOW
Last month, $2.7 million in federal stimulus money was awarded to the Nashville Career Advancement Center. Partnering with Meharry Medical College and the Oasis Center, 600 jobs created for teens needed to be filled through the grant. A sign up sheet was passed around at the Oasis Center board meeting asking for volunteers. This sounded like such a unique event that I could not help but put my name down.
I imagined all the possibilities and the huge difference this venture would make in the lives of so many teens. An idle mind is the playground for the devil; I can hear my grandfather muttering. Daddy kept folks busy by wearing us down with work. This was his quick fix for the long hot days of summer and it kept us out of trouble.
With Daddy's words in my head, I volunteered not knowing what to expect. Information about the job fair was sent to schools and the media, but we had no way of knowing how many teens would attend. Be ready for the unexpected I was told by our fierce leader, Hal Cato. I sensed from his tone that he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. The forecast was uncertain for the weekend and a first time job fair for teens had no room for the unknown.
Upon my arrival at Youth Opportunity Center @ 8:15am, I found the command center tent packed with teens. They came early and I sent up a prayer for the volunteers to get here soon. The job fair was scheduled from 10:00-3:00. By 9:00am, young people were everywhere. They were hungry for jobs. I looked outside and my heart skipped a beat and swelled with joy. As far as the eyes could see, folks were in line to snap up the ultimate teen prize, a summer job. It looked like an American Idol audition with kids from ages 14-19 wrapped around the building. How many jobs do we have, I questioned myself and everyone around me? After taking a second and third look outside, I wondered if we were "Jack" and the fast growing lines were going to become gigantic beanstalks.
Some of the vendors that participated at the unprecedented event were: Publix's, the Frist Center, BCN, Goodwill, Youth United, Metro Health Department, Hands on Nashville. Applications from Foot Locker, the Gap, Hobby Lobby, Aeropostle, Subway, Hibbet Sports, Sports Authority, Arby's, Shoe Carnival and a host of others were available for the teens to fill out and turn in. We even had a room filled with computers for writing resumes and several volunteers to assist. No details to finding a summer job were overlooked.
As I was celebrating the crowd swelling by the minute outside, my mind was grasping the harsh reality of the state of young people on the inside of the building. As the line to the resume center extended to the floor below, the questions at the table that I was covering for Youth United were alarming and frightful.
What is a resume, I was asked by a 12th grader graduating from high school next month. A 10th grader could not spell his street name. And an 11th grader put her MySpace account for her email address. When asked if she had any inappropriate pictures on her MySpace page, she countered my question with what does inappropriate means. With the quickness of a sixteen year old with no tact, I said, "Skanky". As we both stood summing the other up, she finally said, "Oh, I got a few of those on my page." As she stared back at me wondering when I learned Chinese, my eyes filled with tears. I wanted to cry on the spot. As I tried to regain my composure, I gave her a hug and told her to take her pictures off her page ASAP. She was the first of hundreds that I asked the same question throughout the day. My tears were of sadness for our young people.
At that moment, I wanted to yell at folks who buy cell phones for kids that can not write their home address. I wanted to yell at a system called "no child left behind" but does not prepare them to get ahead. I wanted to find someone to scream at and answer how can an eighteen year old not know what the hell is a resume. I wanted to yell at politicians that would rather waste billions on bankers than put millions into our educational system. My yelling would eventually go in circles and solve absolutely nothing. After my conversation with the young lady blew my high, I decided to roll up my sleeves and go to work. My "volunteer" role turned into educator, advocate, and straight up ole' school street woman with life lessons to share.
I wore many hats that day, but the root of my actions was the heart of a mother. I prayed that if someone saw my kids in the same predicament they would scold and love all in the same breath. I was mom to many, asking questions and taking names. How are you doing? What are your future plans? Pull up those pants and turn that cell phone off when I am talking to you. No, you cannot use email@example.com for your email address. That looks a hot ghetto mess and you know it. Let me hear your voice mail on your cell phone. Take that message off now, no potential employer is going to listen to that while waiting to leave you a message! Yes, the kids were looking at me as if I was from planet Mars and I was staring right back as if they were from my house.
For the young ones that walked in with dress shirts, ties and nice attire, praises and hugs were bestowed abundantly. To those who came with resumes in hand, I made darn sure their applications were "APPROVED". An A for going the extra mile and an A for knowing what you know. Several were headed to college and I could not hide my pride. I gave my address to many to send me an invitation to their graduation and I was going to make sure they got acknowledged from our board to encourage them on their journey. I told everyone of them that we were cheering for their success. By the end of the day I came to the conclusion, it did not matter if they were interview ready, had no clue about a resume, or came because a friend said come on let's go. They were in the building and we were there to help them. The adults had the responsibility to make a difference in their life, if only for one day. I took that responsibility seriously and thankful that I got a chance to serve our teens.
No matter what neighborhood we live in, every child is someone's kid and they are all our children. Our children today are our future in a few years. Our kids are hurting and I refuse to close my eyes and say it is not my problem. The Oasis Center is one of several agencies leading the way helping young folks get an education, be leaders today, and be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. But families, places of worship, educators, and the community at large must step up as well. Working together for the greater good is the only hope we have to helping our future have a future. No one group can do it all and no one should even attempt to try. It really takes a village to raise a child as our world grows smaller and harder to navigate. If grown folks are getting weary and losing their footing, imagine the challenges of being young and starting to take baby steps on the road called life.
There are many flaws in the "system" but we cannot blame everything on everybody. There is no time for finger pointing. We must take responsibility for where our kids are today starting with parents first. This is not a post about morals but quite simply a reality check from the real world. Sometimes we have to call things as we see them. We got to do better by being better.
It took me three weeks to finally pen my thoughts from that wonderful day. I am still processing some of it. I spoke with several and shared my concerns and my experience. I am hoping that we take what we learned that weekend and institute job readiness skills that would include not only resume writing, but interviewing skills and dressing for success classes as well. We got the space, and plenty folks that saw what I saw are more than willing to volunteer.
Thanks to the following groups for their hard work on that day: The Nashville Urban Partnership Academic Center of Excellence (NUPACE) at Meharry Medical College, the Nashville Community Coalition for Youth Safety, Nashville Career Advancement Center and Youth United/Oasis Center. I will never forget my first teen job fair. And I hope that this will become a proud tradition in Nashville.
For more information about summer youth jobs go to http://www.nupace.mmc.edu.
Free Spirit Photography